It is impossible to approach the big screen adaptation of John le Carré’s masterpiece without comparing it with the epochal BBC series from 1979. That version starred Alec Guinness as MI6 spymaster George Smiley, along with a cast of peerless British thespians (Ian Bannen, Ian Richardson, Patrick Stewart, Siân Phillips) and is a perfect example of what great television can achieve. Luckily, Tomas Alfredson (Let the Right One In) is the perfect director for this story.
The novel is- among other things- a mythologized account of the Kim Philby scandal, perhaps the most famous failure in British counter intelligence history. It’s the early seventies and Smiley (Gary Oldman) is a retired top- lever officer in “the Circus” (le Carré’s name for MI6). He is called back in a hurry, to investigate the hypothesis that there is a traitor among the hierarchy of the service. Smiley has been ostracized- along with his boss “Control” (a wonderfully dessicated John Hurt), the former head of the Circus- after a disastrous operation in Hungary, where a British agent (Mark Strong) was shot. Smiley starts looking around, revisiting his old comrades and trying to find out the truth.
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is complicated but rewarding. It demands your full attention as it gradually shows you the full picture through flashbacks and conversations. For someone who hasn’t read the book or seen the series, Smiley’s labyrinthine investigation will be a challenge. There is a lot of information and a large cast to keep track of. Like the TV version, the cast is essentially a who- is- who of great character actors of our time. Tom Hardy (Inception, Warrior, The Dark Knight Rises), Toby Jones (Doctor Who, Capote, The Mist), Kathy Burke (Nil By Mouth), Ciarán Hinds (Munich, There Will Be Blood), Colin Firth (The King’s Speech), Benedict Cumberpatch (BBC’s Sherlock), Stephen Graham (This is England).
It is one of the most impressive assortment of actors in years and they all do fantastic work. Only Firth struck me as a bit ordinary, compared to Ian Richardson’s playful, towering performance in the series. Espionage for le Carré is an automnal, chilly world, filled with paranoid Cold War functionaries, petty office squabling and occasional bursts of deadly violence. There is nothing exotic or James Bondian about it. Alfredson shoots this sunless environment with a Zodiac- level attention to the era and makes the existential desperation seem fascinating. In some respects, the cinema budget opens up the story and the surroundings. In other ways, such as the decision to not show the crucial meeting between Smiley and his Soviet opposite, Karla, it works less well. Here, Oldman recounts the story. In the series, it was a scene in flashback, made unforgettable thanks to an intense, worldless performance by Patrick Stewart. Nonetheless, the film’s most interesting moments are often silent and full of meaning and its’ centerpiece, a flashback of an old office party is genius. The film keeps going back to that event, subtly revealing more and more of the relationships between the cast until the last moment and it packs a real punch in an otherwise emotionless group of people. And Oldman deserves an Oscar. His George Smiley is a grey, unremarkable- looking man. Hidden behind owlish glasses (a touch of Alec Guinness), he coldly assesses everyone around him and always asks the right questions. Like Guinness, Oldman manages to convey regret and humanity behind a character who isn’t particularly likable.
Bottom line, I still prefer the series, but the film version more than holds up on its’ own. Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy is a serious, intelligent film that makes most of today’s blockbusters and Oscar contenders seem infantile and desperate. I guess a lot of viewers may be put off by its’ cool, cerebral detachment. I wouldn’t know, as I found it to be one of the best films of 2011. I hope they get to make the other two novel’s in le Carré’s “Karla Trilogy”, The Honourable Schoolboy and Smiley’s People.